Experts Grade Premier's Forestry Teaching Moment

Clark 'educates' kids by threatening their families' livelihoods. Real educators say that's not how it's done.

By Christopher Cheung 15 Apr 2016 |

Christopher Cheung is editorial assistant at The Tyee. Follow him on twitter at @bychrischeung.

When children tell B.C. Premier Christy Clark they want to cut down fewer trees, she tells them that then their parents may not have work and will pay higher taxes, that their families will be poorer.

Not cutting trees, Clark said last week at a Council of Forest Industries convention in Kelowna, means "less money for hockey equipment, less money for school, less money for trips and all those things." Without logging, parents who lose their jobs in forestry "are going to have to start taking money from the government," she said she tells young people.

Clark says she's "glad" when kids open a conversation on logging, "because it's a chance for education."

But while issues like conservation and the environment certainly warrant a discussion with young minds, what constitutes "education" is something else. We asked some actual educators -- professionals from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University -- for their thoughts on the premier's teaching moment.

Persuasion and education aren't the same thing

Clark may see her exchanges with children as educational, but politicians and educators serve different roles, said Dr. Mark Fettes, an associate professor of education at SFU who has conducted research on ecological instruction.

Politicians "are in the business of persuading people to see their point of view," Fettes said. "Ideally, an educator is helping children see different perspectives, to weigh alternatives."

That being said, if Fettes were in Clark's shoes, he said, he'd try to communicate more about B.C.'s history with resources than a black-or-white scenario in which no logging means no money.

The conversation, he suggests, might go something like this: "In our province there's a long history of natural resource extraction such as logging. And there's been a long history of people connecting with, and finding solace and joy in, [and] wanting to protect the natural environment. These are both really important strands of what it means to live in this province.

"So when we encounter issues in the newspapers or on TV, wherever there's debates going on [in] which people are arguing for economics on one side, or environmental grounds [on the other], we shouldn't expect a simple solution.

"This is the kind of world we live in," Fettes observes, "where there are competing points of view, competing values, competing interests, and you are going to be confronting that throughout your lives."

That in turn means that educational moments should sound more like a two-way conversation rather than one-way preaching, especially on controversial topics.

Education as conversation

"Instead of going to an answer," said UBC associate professor in education Robert VanWynsberghe, "I would suggest that the Premier ask a few more questions.

"'Why do you think there's a problem with the number of trees? What do you see in the world that's led to you thinking too many are being cut down?'" are some questions that Clark might try in order to develop "a full blown mental model for what this young person thinks," the UBC prof suggests.

VanWynsberghe cautions adults against thinking that children aren't able to form their own opinion, especially when they feel passionate about something.

"There's more and more research that says we can actually talk to fairly young kids and get sophisticated explanations for the kinds of things they problematize," he said. "So we don't say, 'Well, this is a seven-year-old, so they can't know anything about an issue.'

"Part of it is to unpack [the conversation] a little bit if we're really interested in learning from this child and engaging in an educational moment. You do have to probe a little bit and get some sense of where they're coming from."

Barbara Weber, another associate professor from UBC education with a focus in human development, learning, and culture, similarly cautions against adults telling children what to think.

"What we're doing in [academic] philosophy for children," Weber said, "is to take seriously what children are saying, what is their reasoning, to engage with children in a conversation on a horizontal level. It's about supporting them in how to think and how to express themselves more fully, to find ways to express their own opinions and views."

Weber says this can feel disarming to some educators. "This is a teaching moment, but who teaches who?" she said.

"For educators, it's also very much about having the courage to challenge their own views. Maybe we really don't need to cut so many trees -- I'm not saying this is right or this is wrong, but it's about having a conversation before we decide what is right and wrong, and really digging deep about our own motivations and justifications and rationalizations."

Is it just about the money?

Both UBC professors also took issue with Clark speaking about trees only in terms of monetary value -- or hockey gear.

"There's more to our lives than cost-benefit analysis," said VanWynsberghe. "These are young impressionable minds. When we take a relatively innocent question and break it down to dollars and cents, kids will start to think that's all that matters."

"I think many of them would happily give up their hockey equipment or going to the hockey game if they were to just sit at home with their parents," said Weber. "Kids really care about quality time in my experience. They couldn't care less about the money if they have quality time with their parents or their peers. They can cook a soup or play in the garden with a stick and some grass and be the happiest people the world."

At the same time, she says, "there are many children that are upset that they have no say and no agency in deciding the future, especially with environmental issues. They are generally concerned about the future. Cutting down trees means we're cutting away their future."

Bottom-lining the experts' advice for a busy premier: next time, listen first, and more.  [Tyee]

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